Barbaric is in the eye of the beholder

We’ve all heard the phrase “history is written by the victors”.  There is an African proverb that says the same basic thing: “Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” In other words, those who write the history will tell it from their point of view.  This seems to be only natural and common sense.  Consider, however, what happens when the loser writes the story, and that is the one that is most accessible to us.

One example of this would be the Mongols.  They have a nasty reputation as being barbaric, blood thirsty, heartless conquerors who will slaughter innocent victims along with soldiers with no regard for women or children or what folks call the “Rules of Engagement”.  Movies about the Mongols have titles such as “Genghis Khan: Terror and Conquest” or “Mongols: Storm from the East”.  Horrific!  These are not people you would want to meet in a dark alley (what are you doing in a dark alley anyway?  Get out of there!).

But the majority of sources about Genghis Khan and the Mongols up until pretty recently have been Persian, Russian or Chinese.  In other words, those people who had been conquered by the Mongols.  Not the most unbiased source, eh?

There is another side to the Mongols, though.  While they were indeed very skilled in battle and fought with great ferocity, they certainly weren’t that much different at it than any other civilization around at the time.  They were better at it, otherwise how else could they have conquered such a huge empire?   (See or go back to the Maps of War site discussed in this post)

The part of the story that isn’t as well-known is the role that the Mongols played in supporting trade and interaction across Eurasia.  You can learn more about that side of the Mongols here.

Does the information on the Asia for Educators site surprise you?  Why?  How?


11 comments on “Barbaric is in the eye of the beholder

  1. Molly Sall says:

    The Mongols do seem to be a victim of a very bad publicist. Mongolian women roles were unmatched in 13th-14th century society, and they were even free to join the military, or stay at home and run things when their husbands were off massacring Asia. But it is undeniable that anyone who writes a story will write themselves the heroes. What of the Romans, O Grand Creators of the Western World, who murdered Jews and Christians for heresy? The Romans are often praised for their government (which more or less is just the Athenian system with a different name) but they found themselves unable to control an empire, despite the fact that predecessors of different empires (read: The Mongols) had no issue controlling themselves.
    We write ourselves the hero of our own stories.

  2. Alex Martin says:

    While the Mongols may have possibly the worst reutation for warfare to this day they did help create some major strides in both art and theatre during Kublai Khan’s reign over China. Duing Kublai’s rule he employed Confuscian scholars as advisers which lead to many new policies along with some nice architectural creations. So s for the Mongol’s reputation, I believe their reputation is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. Alexander Ip says:

    The Mongols are indeed great although they have a bad reputation. Their ways of life may have seemed different from what the “norm” was in China, and thus they may have been seen as savages because of this. Though, as the Asia for Educators site tells us, the Mongol rule had had an affect on lessening strict legal codes, and cultivating forms of religions, theatre, and language. This surprised me, as I assume it surprised many others that read this same information, for the Mongols almost actually sound like an east asian version of the Romans. Besides being fierce warriors, much like the Romans, the Mongols had spread new cultural ideas to the places they conquered, again like the Romans. Many people don’t see the Mongols like the culturally developed Romans, for the biased opinions from some of the people they conquered seemed to push past whatever positive things other people may have written about them.

  4. Chris B. says:

    I was surprised to find that, at this site, there were more recent facts about the Mongols. These facts are more accurate than others because of their lack of bias. The information on this site seemed to be stated from a neutral point of view. It admittedly stated that there was bloodshed in the Mongols’ conquer of China and most of Asia, but that is not the only aspect of Mongols civilization that should be recognized. The Mongols made large steps towards peace with trade between East and West. Information about the Mongols, setting them strictly as blood-thirsty violent conquerors, is wrong, because the Mongols were so much more than just that.

  5. Christine Woodyard says:

    The Mongols do have a bad reputation, but they had to have had some good in order to have such a large empire during the rule of Gengis Khan. Also the Mongols had a mark in history. They supported foregin contact and exchange and were able to recieve missionaries from Rome. Also, they supported merchant and trade and had some religious tolerance. All of these examples are just a few reasons that the Mongols shouldn’t have such a horrible reputation. These examples show that the Mongols accomplished quite a bit, becuase some of these things were hard to accomplish during their time period.

  6. Dylan Kolb says:

    I agree with you…The Huns were exploited because of ther superiority in combat, yet there is little to know about thier actual lifestyle. I found out that when they conquered a region they were usually very tolerant to their subjects and let them practice their own religion.

  7. Matt Masakayan says:

    The majority of the views pertaining to the barbarically depicted Mongols are dictated by the pieces of history recorded from the minds of their victims. Although these accounts of the oppressed may appear true, they fail however to justify the views of the oppressors, the Mongols. Often they ignore how the tolerance of Mongol rule allowed cultures such as the Chinese and the developing Russians to flourish. The accounts also fail to acknowledge how the influence of Mongol rule enabled cultures throughout Eurasia to share ideas and inventions such as paper money. Historical documents involving past conflict or oppression rarely depict unbiased views, and therefore they can only be used as partial sources. Until several accounts from both opposing views are equally examined, barbaric reputations such as that of the Mongols cannot be confirmed as complete facts.

  8. Alex Wai says:

    Everyone has their own side to a story. Chances are slim that the explanations will match with perfect clarity. Even though they experienced the same situation, they saw it from different views. For example, the Mongols in battle. Their repuation of being barbaric and showing no mercy, could be completely true…to the opposing. The Mongols were extravagant in battle, conquered lands and became more prosperous. Unfortunately, their side of the story isn’t shared with proper adequacy. Mongols were tolerant of the conquered, giving them freedoms that other societies most certainly denied. So, if you don’t know the other half of the story, what good does that do?

  9. Christopher Alvarenga says:

    Well, everyone has their own story to tell be it the winner or the loser. The chance of both of them being the same are highly unlikely because everyone sees it at a different angle. The mongols probably have the worst reputation in history because they were savage and heartless but from their angle its normal cause thats how they grew up. The mongols didn’t just pillage they also spread new ideas and kept the trade routes safe for merchants. so in my opinion what they did was pretty cruel but with it made asia a more powerful continent.

  10. Ben Cohen says:

    The Mongol Empire was the biggest empire in history, stretching all the way from East Asia to the western borders of Europe. During the height of the empire, the Mongols succeeded in spreading some important ideas and inventions across Asia and Europe. The use of gunpowder, silk production, and the Arabic number system were brought by to the lands they conquered. Although the societies they conquered benefitted from the new knowledge, the Mongols were ruthless warriors, showing little mercy to those they attacked. As a result, the Mongol Empire developed a rather negative reputation. Who would you side with, those who benefited? Or those who suffered and had to face a force of massive proportion with no mercy for those left alive.

  11. […] Barbaric is in the eye of the beholder August 2010 10 comments 5 […]

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